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Business as Usual: Why ‘the Handshake’ Has Had Little Impact on the Fortunes of the Luo People

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.

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Business as Usual: Why ‘the Handshake’ Has Had Little Impact on the Fortunes of the Luo People

“The Luo community is happy Raila is back at the centre,” intoned our physician friend, Dr Sam Owino. In the last twelve months, since the surprise political rapprochement between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his antagonist-in-chief Raila Odinga, the talk about town has been how the Luos are now reaping from the so-called “Handshake”. “We’re no longer the political bogeyman of the state,” reiterated the Nairobi physician. “It has never been fun carrying the tag and burden of oppositional politics in the country for all these years.”

After the Handshake, which had been preceded by a piercing palpable tension across the country, Raila, the leader of the nascent opposition outfit, the National Super Alliance (NASA), broke ranks with his colleagues Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula to sue for peace with President Uhuru of the Jubilee Party. “Koro wan eisirkal,” (We’re now in government…we’re no longer in the opposition) said Raila soon after the Handshake, a statement that was reiterated by President Uhuru. A visitor to the country soon after the combustible double elections would never appreciate and digest fully the import of that statement.

No community in Kenya has borne the brunt of the state’s political malice and economic sabotage than the Luo people, observed Oduor. “The Luo people have suffered the greatest political harassment and assassinations in this country, starting with Argwings Kodhek, who was killed in January 1969…”

To a section of the Luo community, “being in the political cold,” is a phrase they identify with all too well. “The Luo people have been in the opposition effectively since 1966, when President Jomo Kenyatta shunted his Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga,” said Bernard Oduor, an advertising and marketing manager of a Nairobi-based publishing company. “Let another community shoulder the weight of being always on the receiving end of the state’s anti-development brutal policies and constant violence.”

No community in Kenya has borne the brunt of the state’s political malice and economic sabotage than the Luo people, observed Oduor. “The Luo people have suffered the greatest political harassment and assassinations in this country, starting with Argwings Kodhek, who was killed in January 1969. Six months later, Tom Mboya, perhaps the greatest of Luo leaders, was killed, possibly by the same forces that took care of Kodhek through a freak accident.”

That same year, 1969, the government detained Jaramogi with other Luo leaders for standing up to Jomo and the Kiambu Mafia’s imperial tendencies, recalls Oduor. “It was a cruel testament of the political harassment by the successive government of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi that by the time multipartyism was being re-introduced in Kenya, in 1991, Jaramogi was already frail, old and sickly.” A multiparty election was held in December 1992 and Jaramogi was elected the MP for Bondo. A year later, on January 20, 1994, Jaramogi was dead.

From 1963 to 1978, Kenya had been a de facto one party state. But in 1982, just before the attempted military putsch led by Kenya Air Force officers on August 1, 1982, the country become a de jure one party state, after Jaramogi and George Anyona, the firebrand politician from Gusiiland, walked to the registrar’s office at Sheria House and demanded to register their party – the Kenya African Socialist Alliance (KASA). Feeling threatened by the duo’s courage and determination to register a new party, one afternoon Moi summoned MPs and asked them to change the constitution to make Kenya a one-party dictatorship.

“Even though Robert Ouko, the brilliant foreign affairs minister, worked for the Kanu government and was a loyal lieutenant of Moi, they still got rid of him, proving that no Luo politician was good enough for a Kenyan government,” opined Oduor. “It has been a tortuous long journey and it’s time we enjoyed some respite.”

Broken promises    

In the aftermath of a contested August 8, 2017 election and the subsequent boycott of the second presidential election on October 26, 2017, the state visited violence on members of the Luo community in Nairobi County, and especially in the lakeside town of Kisumu, which is perceived as a base for the Luo community. In both cities, hordes of youth from the ghetto suburbs of Kibera and Mathare in Nairobi and Nyalenda and Kondele in Kisumu rioted, protesting the gross mismanagement of the election procedure. Many of the youth who were felled by the bullets of state security personnel were Luo youth.

“The Handshake was meant to cool the political temperatures, which were threatening to soar overboard,” said Steve Ochuodho, a researcher in African history. “It was to allow for the country to go back to its normal self and stabilise, with the aim of the country hopefully taking off economically. True, the country stabilised, but nothing much has really happened thereafter.”

The promises that Raila made after the Handshake, ostensibly to the Luo community, are nothing new, explained Ochuodho: “They are the same promises Raila has been making since 1997 when he merged his fledging National Democratic Party (NDP) with Kanu. Since then, it is the Odinga family that has continually grown rich at the expense of the Luo people…”

“Contrary to popular belief being peddled by ‘Raila evangelists’ that the Luos are now in government, nothing could be further from the truth,” noted Ochuodho. “Luos aren’t in the government and more than ever before, they are languishing in poverty. I fret every time I hear that Luos are now enjoying and I ask: Which Luos are these? If there are any Luos in government, they must be Raila’s friends or his relatives from Siaya County,” added the researcher.

The promises that Raila made after the Handshake, ostensibly to the Luo community, are nothing new, explained Ochuodho: “They are the same promises Raila has been making since 1997 when he merged his fledging National Democratic Party (NDP) with Kanu. Since then, it is the Odinga family that has continually grown rich at the expense of the Luo people. Because of these Raila Handshakes, the Luo people are treated as the Odinga family’s captives to be traded with politically any time the family wants to reap financially from the existing government.”

“There are no deliverables, neither are there fruits to be harvested from the Handshake,” said Ochuodho. “All what we are hearing is what it intends to do, It is classic political brinkmanship.” All what the Handshake has done is to entrench even further retrogressive leadership in Luo Nyanza.”

“Through the Handshake, Cyprian Awiti, the Homa Bay governor, came back. Every Luo voter, wherever he or she was, knew Awiti was never going to survive a by-election if the court upheld the petition.” Former Kasipul MP Oyugi Magwanga had successively petitioned both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, only for the Supreme Court to uphold his election victory in August 8, 2017.

With the coming by-election in Ugenya, Raila has already told the voters ahead of time that they should not let him down – that they should return Christopher Karan, who the court found had engaged in electoral malpractices, pointed out Ochuodho. “Kik ukuod wiya jothurwa, (Please don’t embarrass me), Raila told the voters when he went there recently. Even though Karan is unpopular, the ODM party still gave him a direct ticket.” David Ouma Ochieng, Karan’s chief opponent and the immediate former MP, whose petition was heard by the High Court in Kisumu, will be mounting a soap box when the by-election comes up on April 5, 2019.

“The Luo people were not ready for the Handshake,” said Mike Osilo, an information technologist in Nairobi. “Because they were ready for war. The state’s unceasing violence against the Luo people had created in them an appetite for unstoppable bloodshed. They were prepared to go the whole hog.”

Osilo said this hardline stance had been fomented during the October 26 fresh presidential elections when elections did not take place in four Nyanza counties (Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya). “For the first in the history of post-independent Kenya, a people had successively held back a state with all its militarised violence. From then on, the people decided there was no turning back and then the Handshake happened.”

“The Building the Bridges Initiative, the result of the Handshake, has now become a parastatal,” quipped Osilo. “It was meant to give jobs to the favoured boys. Everything is business as usual. If the Handshake and its appendage, the BBI, was serious in developing Luo Nyanza, it would have started by reviving Ahero Irrigation Scheme and the Chemilil, Muhoroni and Sony sugar factories…”

Osilo said Raila’s Handshake compensation promise to the families that lost their relatives in the last election, especially in Kisumu, has remained just that: a promise. “Immediately after the Handshake, Raila went down to Kondele, the site of the greatest state violence visited on a people. Scores of youth were killed by the GSU and Raila that night told their families that the government was going to compensate them. The people were in a very uncompromising mood, but Raila managed to calm them down. Twelve months later, there is nothing to show for that promise.”

“The Building the Bridges Initiative, the result of the Handshake, has now become a parastatal,” quipped Osilo. “It was meant to give jobs to the favoured boys. Everything is business as usual. If the Handshake and its appendage, the BBI, was serious in developing Luo Nyanza, it would have started by reviving Ahero Irrigation Scheme and the Chemilil, Muhoroni and Sony sugar factories, for instance. When I hear people talking of deliverables through the Handshake, I wonder where these deliverables are to be found.”

“Let it be on record: The much talked about dredging vessel brought to Lake Victoria actually preceded the Handshake – Raila just hijacked its launching on January 19, 2019. Likewise, the ongoing resuscitation of the Kenya Breweries Limited plant in Kisumu is not a product of the Handshake: KBL had already given the farmers the go-ahead [before the Handshake took place] to start sowing sorghum. As for the ferry transport on Lake Victoria, the World Bank had already mapped the lake for its Lake Victoria Transport programme as far back as 2016,” noted Osilo.

“One year down the line, the Handshake had become a forum for exchanging insults,” said Ochuodho. “Those who used Ruto to thrust a poisoned dagger into Raila’s back are the same people who are now are using him to stab Ruto in the back.” In Ochuodho’s view, “Canaan had become a mirage”, whose climax was deporting Joshua Miguna Miguna, a deportation Ochuodho squarely blames Raila for. “I can tell you this, the Handshake will not last – it will soon collapse, and after it collapses, Raila will walk away in shame, this time accompanied by old age.” The referendum which is supposed to be the outcome of BBI is “already poisoned,” summed up Ochuodho.

No bridges built in Kisumu

In the lakeshore Kisumu city, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)’s first anniversary went unnoticed. The residents we interviewed were resolute that the Handshake was still a puzzle and shrouded in mystery. Hence, the rapprochement means different things to different people. One year after it took place, it still dominates public discussions, eliciting more questions than answers.

“Did the Handshake simply substitute Luo-Kalenjin elite rivalry with the Luo-Gikuyu elite one? Are the Gikuyu elite now holding the ring between Raila Odinga and William Ruto? Who really is our enemy?” posed a middle-aged man at the Bunge la Wananchi (Peoples’ Parliament) meeting taking place under the huge canopy of an oak-like tree off the Kisumu-Kampala Road where real politik is earnestly and hotly debated during the lunch break.

For some of Kisumu’s residents, what the Handshake has succeeded in doing is resuscitate puzzling questions that revolve around Raila’s political deftness and survival instincts. “Raila’s an avid football fan and right now he has the ball…will he, this time just get away with a high ball against William Ruto? If he does, will Ruto, stand between him and the goal? Or, will he this time finally score the winning goal, now that the referees of the presidential tourney seems to be on his side?” mused Willis Ochieng. “Ruto is not a leader, he’s a dealer. There’s no doubt he would be bad for the country – he’s unsympathetic to the feelings of the people. But that aside, the big question that has been disturbing us is, just what is in it for the rest of the spectator crowd?

At the Kondele highway interchange, we met Shem Matiku, a cobbler who plies his trade below the interchange. Kondele was the site of fierce battles between the battle-hardened youth of the sprawling ghetto, who fought back the paramilitary police, the General Service Unit (GSU) in August 2017 after the first presidential election. Matiku had since put that terrible period behind him: “I’m an optimist. I believe Raila has the best interests of his people. Uhuru, unlike Ruto is not a hardliner, he could be a hard bargainer, but a bargainer nonetheless and that is why he made a pact with Raila.”

“Ruto’s too forceful,” reflected Matiku, in between shining his customers’ shoes. “It is as if he’s forcing the people to elect him: it’s either his way or the highway.” The cobbler observed that until Raila went into government, development in Luo Nyanza was lopsided. “Now we’re beginning to see some development our way: Kenya Breweries has reopened its factory and construction of roads has commenced and corruption is being fought…you know what…Raila helped Uhuru see state corruption in the government. Let the spirit of the Handshake flow. We support it one hundred percent.”

However, George Collins Owour, an astute civil society leader, is utterly unimpressed by the Handshake. “We wanted to put up a monument in honour of the victims of political violence, preferably at the Jomo Kenyatta sports ground and have Raila Odinga launch it,” said Owuor. “A monument that would tell the story of the victims of political violence, and a constant reminder to the youth of the dangers of political violence, while at the same time establishing a link between poverty and politics. The monument had been also intended to occupy a space for discussing political violence and how it distracts and destroys lives of many unhinged youth. It would remind them of the dangers of disorganised and unhelpful protests and thereby discourage them from participating in them.”

“The youth are always ready to participate in protests, but where are they now? Some were killed and maimed, others were arrested and falsely accused of robbery with violence and are now languishing in jail, having been forgotten,” lamented Owuor. “The irony is that the county government of Kisumu, while rejecting our proposal, was quick to fast track its own plans of erecting a statue in memory of Jaramogi Odinga.”

“Jaramogi initiated the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation, which inspired small- and medium-scale business initiatives in Nyanza region. As a social democrat, Jaramogi also led popular grassroots movements for political and cultural awareness in the whole of East Africa,” said Prof Anyang Nyong’o, the Governor of Kisumu.

While the contribution of Jaramogi among the Luo community is in no doubt and cannot be contested, whether in Luo Nyanza or, indeed the entire country, to seemingly bury the history of the youth, who have paid with their lives for fighting for democracy, is callous and deceitful, bemoaned Owuor. “Let us not kid ourselves – the Handshake has not worked for the youth: the boda bodas (motor cycle riders), street vendors and hawkers are still suffering – some lost their lives, others are today living with live bullets in their bodies. Nobody talks about their plight and President Uhuru and Raila have largely forgotten about them.”

Owuor said it would be pretentious to build bridges when the youth have been neglected. “The youth had been promised Canaan. Instead what they got was a Handshake between two political bigwigs who cared for nothing as far as the youth were concerned. Because of this, Raila cannot hold a rally in Kisumu – the youth are still very embittered.”

The divided opinion of Kisumu residents suggested that the Handshake was a self-preservation elite pact. Raila’s core political constituents, still hurting and nursing post-presidential election injuries and injustices since 2007, and suffering biting hunger pangs in these economic hard times, have been forced, yet again, to defer their quest for justice and reparations.

The civil society leader said BBI was a reward for the boys. “I’ve been seeing them in seminars taking selfies, and we’ve yet to see a preliminary report of its findings. If BBI was working, we wouldn’t have heard the kind of political rhetoric and bitterness we witnessed at the Kirinyaga governors’ conference. Truth be told, BBI has been overtaken by events…stupid…succession politics is the order of the day.”

The divided opinion of Kisumu residents suggested that the Handshake was a self-preservation elite pact. Raila’s core political constituents, still hurting and nursing post-presidential election injuries and injustices since 2007, and suffering biting hunger pangs in these economic hard times, have been forced, yet again, to defer their quest for justice and reparations.

Hard feelings, brought about by past betrayals by a cross-section of the Gikuyu elite, the construction of a few road projects, the appointment of a few sons-of-the-soil into public offices, and some subsidy for the beleaguered sugarcane farmers to numb the Luo people’s raw wounds, as they cheat them again, are still very real.

The mixed reactions also revealed a wide gap between the politics that the Handshake enabled at the county level – where incompetent, corrupt, and nepotistic leadership is the name of the game, and where Raila’s hard core support base yearns for a clean and competent government that can deliver healthcare, food, and clean water – and national-level politics, where the very same Raila has been baying for the blood of some of the corrupt, inept and ethnic chauvinists in charge of various ministries.

Drunk with power by proxy

At the county level, the Handshake, it seems, is politics as usual. It starkly reminds Kenyans, especially residents of Kisumu, Homa Bay, Siaya and Migori counties, that their political fortunes or misfortunes since independence have risen or fallen hard with every elite pact, and the ever changing political coalitions, mostly beholden to expedient political interests.

“This time, it’s a call for a big sacrifice from Raila’s political ambitions, an exchange for the quest for justice for the electoral malpractices and victims of police violence, for some ‘development’,” and ultimately, Raila’s quest for the presidency or premiership,” posited Martin Augo.

If Raila’s core support base yearns for competent and accountable county governments is unmistakable, then the Handshake seemed to make such demands only at the national government level, points out Willis Ochieng, a tenderprenuer who has worked in several county governments in western Kenya. “The Handshake,” said Ochieng, “ilituliza joto la siasa, lakini wananchi bado hawana huduma. Ma MCAs, wamesahau hata watu wao kabisa. Wanapigana bunge kujaza mifuko yao tu.” (The Handshake cooled the political temperatures, but the people still lack services. These MCAs have completely ignored the people who elected them. They fight in their respective assemblies to fill their pockets).

In several social media platforms, Kenyans envy the counties that have made remarkable progress and built infrastructure that makes county residents proud, such as the stadium in Kakamega County, the hospital in Makueni County, and the level-six hospital in Kisii County. But hardly anyone envies a hyacinth-free Siaya or Homa Bay or a world class football stadium in Migori. Raila’s strongholds, it seems, have nothing to show for the six years of the devolved government experiment.

Drunk with power by proxy, the party, it seems, is wasting its energy, distracted by chasing “the rat that is escaping a burning house” rather than putting out the fire that is consuming the house. ODM, it seems, reserves its harshest punishment for minnows, inconsequential transgressions and comical infractions, rather than the life-and-death violations of the men-only governors of its core ODM political base…

One hears only an occasional gnashing of clerical teeth, a dissatisfied Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Bishop James Ochiel of Southern Nyanza diocese, but hardly a gnashing of the second liberators’ teeth, the custodians of the spirit of the struggle against bad government, among them the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party’s honchos.

Drunk with power by proxy, the party, it seems, is wasting its energy, distracted by chasing “the rat that is escaping a burning house” rather than putting out the fire that is consuming the house. ODM, it seems, reserves its harshest punishment for minnows, inconsequential transgressions and comical infractions, rather than the life-and-death violations of the men-only governors of its core ODM political base – men who, except for Prof Nyong’o, are seen as corrupt, nepotistic, incapable and fantastically generous with cash hand-outs, often given to a few hangers-on as they ride out a lacklustre two-term tenure at the helm of the Homa Bay, Siaya, and Migori county governments.

The ODM mandarins and Raila evangelists would rather they shadow and listen to the double meaning of Aisha Jumwa’s supposed disloyalty and sexed-up taunts of kiuno kiuno (hip gyrations) or “Kanugo e teko,” in Kisumu-speak. Aisha Jumwa’s flaunting of her sex appeal, which seems to gain the ire of the mostly male ODM party honchos, might look comical, but it is a timely reminder than the ODM party leaders may have to work extra hard to keep women’s support. Many women who support the party are hurting and hard done by tough economic times.

No justice for victims of political violence

In Kisumu’s Obunga slum, we sat down with two women outside the aptly named New Obunga Pub, who out of fear of reprisal from ODM Kisumu party hacks requested anonymity. “Risasi oweyo goyo udi wa. tear gas orumo,” (The bullets have stopped hitting our houses and the tear gas is no more), said the lady with a spec of gray hair. “The only respite we have now is that people are no longer running helter-skelter…we, at least, can move freely,” intoned her younger friend. “But there is nothing much else: there is no business, no income, we can’t buy anything because we don’t have the money. You just hustle as hard and kama kawaida (as usual nothing has changed). There is no work for the youth.”

Many, especially women, are still hurting and carrying the scars of the political violence of the 2017 presidential elections. They are also deeply impacted by the tough economic times. “Women were raped. Some lost family members, and although some of the victims formed a support group and were given food at the Kenyatta sports ground, they didn’t get any other help,” said one of the women, a human rights defender, who was hunched over an old model laptop plastered with stickers.

Justice for the victims of political violence has remained a sticky sour question. Unlike their counterparts from Central Kenya, many of the internally displaced people (IDPs) or returnees who came back to Kisumu and neighbouring counties are still waiting for the token financial compensation for the loss of land or livelihood.

The majority of the victims of the recent political violence feel let down by their elected leaders. At best, the elected leaders have been opportunistic and at worst indifferent to the plight of the victims. Shena Ryan, who works with a youth group that runs a charity for the poor living with HIV on the outskirts of Kisumu city, said, “It’s not enough to pay for the funeral expenses and give hand-outs to the bereaved for cheap publicity. A politician’s still a politician, always looking out for cheap glorification.”

Ryan reckons that the Handshake had restored stability, no doubt, because “Kikuyus could now again trade freely in Kibuye. We went to the streets, to protest electoral injustices, and some of us were killed. No one has got justice. They are telling us the OCS Nyalenda will be charged. Until these policemen are charged, it will remain just a narrative.”

Said the social worker, “I wasn’t for the Handshake and now, with the knowledge of hindsight, it would have been better had we not poured into the streets. Until the two buffaloes who shook hands come back to the people, purposefully apologise to the victims of the police violence, that Handshake means nothing. Recently, when the duo visited [to attend Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s memorial in Bondo], we were told, ‘Do not heckle Jakom. Who’s Jakom?’” The Handshake has returned us into a one-part state; we are all now in the Jubilee Party.”

In place of the elected leaders, a consortium of civic organisations comprising the Kisumu City Residents Voice, the Kondele Justice Centre, the National Informal Sector Alliance and Kisumu Joint Bunge Initiative, among others, have stepped in to pursue justice for at least 67 people who incurred various bodily injuries, both in the run-up to and after the 2017 presidential elections.

The consortium has petitioned the office of the Chief Justice of Kenya, asking Justice David Maraga to establish a tribunal to look into how security officers singled out and policed Luo Nyanza region during the last general election, to pursue justice for the victims of police violence, and to recommend the prosecution of the police officers who may be found to have been culpable of violence.

Mixed fortunes

Kisumu residents feel that their elected leaders are also indifferent to their economic plight. “Tich tire” (I’m hard at work) says Governor Prof Anyang’, who valorises the Protestant work ethic. But his constituents, such as Willis Ojwang’, retort, “Tich tire; to kech kecho,” (You are hard at work, but hunger bites sting).

Kisumu is no longer stuck in a socialist-like rut of drab municipal and civil service housing, uniformly dull in a state of disrepair, and the old ubiquitous rickety and dusty Peugeot 404 plying the Kondele-Kondele route that were kept on the narrow and badly maintained roads by the combined genius of the city’s mechanics and take-no-prisoners drivers.

The regional marine transport into the port of Kisumu is as good as dead. And the railway tracks are buried deep in the soil. Yet, the urban poor now cruise through the city’s new road networks and underpasses, four or five passengers in a tuk tuk, (rickshaw-type three-wheeler taxis) or as one or two passengers on a boda boda. Its streets, especially in the CBD, all the way to Kisumu International Airport, are well lit at night.

But the city has not yet turned a corner. Its economy is not yet as dynamic as its demography, especially as it draws in other East Africans, such as the Burundians and more Ugandans, who are hawking consumer goods in search of surplus incomes. More than the Protestant work ethic, Kisumu’s economy is in dire need of structural change, the revival of agricultural sectors and ventures into agribusiness, if only to mitigate the widening gender inequality gap and meet the demands of regional integration.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.”

Although the revival of the KBL Kisumu plant held hope for some, the two women we talked to in Obunga complained that the plant employs people from Nairobi, Uganda, Nyakach, and Machakos, not the residents of Obunga as they had hoped. Worse still, for women who have been left out of the city’s better-paying male dominated boda boda and the car wash businesses, the fish processing companies, which used to employ many women directly and indirectly through trading in mgongo wazi (fish skeletons) is closed. “It was big business for all. But with the coming of the Chinese fish, the companies closed. These companies now use their big freezers and cold rooms to store and redistribute Chinese fish,” said one of the women.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.”

“Prostitution is rife here,” one of the women told us. “If you guys stayed a little longer, you’d see a traffic of women moving up towards Kondele, Gwara-Gwara or Ka-Lorry where sex goes for as little Sh20 per shot. What has the Handshake done for us? It has pushed us into sex slavery,” moaned the woman dejectedly as the sun was setting on Obunga slum.

Youth too have missed the BBI boat. If university students’ campus politics is a good indicator for the shifting political alliance, then Kathy Gitau, the articulate, urbane, and charming vice chairperson of the Maseno University students’ council knows all too well how significant local politics, including campus politics, are intricately tied to the centre.

Clutching a long list of names of students who deserve bursaries this semester, which are due for submission, she agreed that the Handshake, “had cooled down political temperatures …brought political stability, freedom of movement, and good working relationship across ethnic divides, and on campus, bridged the ethnic rift between students”, making it possible for her and team to invoke the spirit of the Handshake to canvass for votes. As a coalition of three women and four men, and as a coalition of a Luo (chairperson), a Kikuyu (vice chairperson), a Luhya (treasurer), a Kisii and Turkana, they had been elected.”

Stated Gitau: “Before the Handshake, it was hard for a Kikuyu or Kalenjin to get elected by the students. Ethnic discrimination against the Kikuyu and Kalenjin was rife among students. ‘Why should we give you a piece of cake here when you have the national cake?’ argued the students. Our competence, individuality, strong gender and ethnic balance swept us into office. All candidates in our coalition, except one, were elected. We won by a landslide,” said Gitau.

Still, Ms Gitau had some reservations. The Handshake, she said, “has bridged the divisions among the ordinary citizens who can now interact freely, but it has also widened the rift among the political class. It has killed the opposition. Raila now has a central role in government because he seems to have edged out Ruto. This could, as well, affect us, pitting us in an endless cycle of disputes and divisions.”

She, however, admitted that she still doesn’t understand what the Handshake is all about. “Is it supposed to end in a referendum? If so, how will we participate in a process whose outcome or end game is unknown or seems predetermined? What is in it for the youth? Be that as it may, the Handshake seems to have shifted the focus away from the Big Four Agenda issues of food, healthcare, housing and industrialisation.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant and Akoko Akech is a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, presently living in Kisumu.

Politics

State Capture: Why Kenya Has Been Unable to Slay the Corruption Dragon

In this four-part series, WACHIRA MAINA explains how “state capture elites” have undermined anti-corruption efforts and why, despite decades of reforms and numerous commissions of inquiry, corruption remains an enduring element of Kenyan politics and society.

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State Capture: Why Kenya Has Been Unable to Slay the Corruption Dragon
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Corruption has been a persistent problem in Kenya since before independence but it has flourished and put down robust roots since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1992. With more democratisation, the government’s infirmity in fighting corruption has also grown proportionately.

The cost of corruption to Kenya is a much-debated figure, but some experts say it is up to 1 per cent of GDP per year. Corruption cases are routinely reported in the press, in the Auditor General’s reports and to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) but these are rarely fully investigated let alone resolved satisfactorily.

Commissions of inquiry, such as the Inquiry into the Goldenberg Affair, the Inquiry into Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land, and the Gicheru Commission of Inquiry into Robert Ouko’s death, have achieved little. Even where a commission proposes extensive reforms – as the Inquiry into Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land did – these are implemented in a patchy manner, seemingly “triaged” to exonerate the powerful or to punish their enemies.

Key sectors of the economy – food, land and oil, for example – are vulnerable to periodic heists and systematic mendacity and cover-ups. Reports of investigations done by committees of Parliament, such as the Musikari Kombo list of shame, are either totally rejected or doctored before they are laid before the House, ensuring that no action is ever taken.

Prosecutions fare no better: small fish are nabbed, big fish never. Even where, uncommonly, an indictment is followed by a conviction, the stolen money is rarely recovered. In the handful of cases where monies have been returned, it is usually from lowly officials. In some exceptional cases, the bigwigs will make secret “sweetheart deals” in which they return some token assets but get to keep the greater loot. All this motion without movement is possible because corruption is deeply embedded in politics, which it both funds and subverts.

As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees 2003 clearly showed, politicians are the largest donors to so-called charitable causes (churches, schools, higher education and funerals are firm favourites) to which they give fortunes that are many times more than their known legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait-and-switch ploy – once institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to reach deeper into public coffers. The Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees 2003 revealed how intimately corruption is linked to politics. Laws were amended to stop civil servants from getting involved in fund-raising activities. By 2010, however, the law was being honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

Why reforms fail

Reforms come in unsustainable spurts, usually after an election, as in 2003, or in a moment of fiscal crisis, as in 2013 just before Kenya went to the market to issue its first Eurobond. In 2002, in the early phase of the Mwai Kibaki administration, there was frantic action that, for a moment, seemed to herald a fresh beginning in the fight against graft. The national mood was optimistic, exultant and supportive. One thousand procurement officers were suspended after an audit showed widespread irregularities.

Between 2003 and 2007 a raft of new laws were made, buttressing a new set of anti-corruption institutions. Commissions of inquiry and task forces were set up to investigate past scandals and propose additional reforms. These were expectant times: in a 2003 Gallup International survey of more than 67,500 people in 65 countries, Kenyans were ranked the most optimistic people in the world. This result was not a response to any of these reforms, merely the after-glow of the fall of the Daniel arap Moi autocracy. What it says, though, is that the government was riding on a huge wave of a popular “feel-good” moment and legitimacy.

As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees 2003 clearly showed, politicians are the largest donors to so-called charitable causes…to which they give fortunes that are many times more than their known legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait-and-switch ploy – once institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to reach deeper into public coffers.

It didn’t last. The laws were no sooner enacted than they were ignored. Task forces and commissions completed their tasks but nothing happened. Notwithstanding the baleful effect of the Goldenberg scandal on the national economy, the commission of inquiry into the scandal, led by Justice Bosire, was irresolute in its recommendations, most of which called for further investigations. The Bosire Commission had been tasked with investigating major financial fraud in the early 1990s involving a company called Goldenberg Ltd. and the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), in which the CBK and the local banking sector made losses of over $1 billion.

The report of the Kiruki Commission (2006) on the activities of the notorious Artur Brothers never even saw the light of day. The two brothers had been involved in a series of high-profile criminal activities and security breaches in collusion with highly placed Kenyan officials, which included a raid on the premises of the Standard Media Group.

As under the Moi regime, the much-loved commissions of inquiry have proved to be exceptionally weak instruments against graft. Few real changes have come out of the more than 30 commissions of inquiry Kenya has had in a century. And yet taxpayers invest millions in these commissions, expecting a real return by way of official integrity. As one AfriCOG report notes:

The Goldenberg Commission cost Kshs 503 million of which Kshs 200 million was spent on operations and Kshs 303 million on allowances. The Ndung’u Commission cost Kshs 78 million of which Kshs 7.4 million went to operations and Kshs 70.7 million was paid out as allowances. The Kiruki Commission cost Kshs 19.97 million of which Kshs 13.37 was paid out in allowances and Kshs 6.6 million went to operations.

Yet despite all these efforts, President Kibaki failed to actually reduce corruption. Instead, barely a year into the Kibaki presidency, in 2004, the still unresolved Anglo Leasing scandal broke out. By the mid-point of President Kibaki’s first term, most Kenyans had given up hope that corruption could be meaningfully tackled. To date, that has not changed.

The widespread nature of corruption means that Kenya routinely performs very poorly in international and local measures of corruption, integrity and good governance. Since the Transparency International (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index was launched in 1995, Kenya has invariably been in the bottom half of the countries surveyed. Sometimes, the country records some improvement on particular indicators, such as the World Bank’s Government Effectiveness and Doing Business surveys, but generally it soon slips back to its bad ways, or just stagnates. Locally, corruption surveys by TI’s national chapter report widespread bribery. Some institutions, such as the police, land registries and county licencing services, have been reported to have been notoriously predatory.

Thus, a generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic in Kenya. Mostly, the government has embraced appearances of reform, rather than the fact of reform and this is so because deep reforms would loosen the ruling elite’s grip on power and severely subvert politics as it is played in Kenya.

State capture 

What is at play in Kenya is “state capture” – defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit. As defined by Catrina Godinho and Lauren Hermanus, state capture is “. . . a political-economic project whereby public and private actors collude in establishing clandestine networks that cluster around state institutions in order to accumulate unchecked power, subverting the constitutional state and social contract by operating outside of the realm of public accountability.” 

If capture is successful, “state institutions, governance, and functions are repurposed and re-engineered over time”, and the constitutional state sheds many of its substantive, but not formal, democratic features and becomes increasingly autocratic, at least in the ways in which power is exercised de facto”.

What is at play in Kenya is “state capture” – defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit.

The success of state capture, therefore, rests on the ability of a small group of powerful and rich operatives to take over and pervert the institutions of democracy while keeping the façade of a functioning democracy. Thus, oversight institutions are weakened; law enforcement is partisan and in the pockets of politicians; civic space is asphyxiated; free elections are frustrated and are typically won by the most violent or the most corrupt, or those who are both violent and corrupt; arrests and indictments are often precursors of inaction, not proof of official will to fight corruption.

Essential to state capture is the existence of a crooked, conniving and reciprocal relationship between certain types of businesses and politicians. State capture creates a two-government country: there is an elected government, and there is a shadow government, a state within a state. Capture networks radiate, web-like, from two centres: the Presidency, where the power is concentrated, and the Treasury, where money management is centralised.

Successful state capture networks in Kenya have had two elements. On the bureaucratic side, there is usually a coterie of favoured officials who are allowed to accumulate, concentrate and exercise power in completely unaccountable ways, often behind the shield of presidential privilege, state security or defence procurement. On the business side, there is often a clique of local businessmen allied to political insiders, or alternatively, the favoured groups are shadowy international companies whose shareholders are usually unknown. Capturing and controlling the Presidency, the source of power, and the Treasury, the source of money, is essential to fashioning the “criminal web” necessary to repurpose government for the benefit of rent-seeking elites.

This state capture perspective therefore requires us to see the state elite not as a government at all, but as a vertically integrated criminal organisation that operates in the shadow of the constitutional state. Taking that view, even political rivals are allies who co-exist uneasily, not principally, for the purpose of exercising the functions of the state in the abstract, but primarily and concretely for extracting resources for personal gain. Given its private objectives, the state, seen this way, has no interest in public purposes, such as development, education or health.

This perspective also questions the idea that the Kenyan state is recognisable as such, suggesting instead that institutions are run as noxious, corrupt, criminal fiefdoms. The government, from the presidency to the police, is privatised, with criminal elements operating under unofficial licence from civil authority. The appropriate way to think of the authorities is as organised criminals who have perverted state institutions to maximise predation.

Governance as a “front activity”

Why has state capture been so stable in Kenya, even seemingly able to transition through elections? Well, because the capture elites are not self-annihilating and an unstated rule of capture is that successor regimes will not disturb their predecessors. As John of Salisbury wrote in Policratius:

The raven rejoices in the work of the wolf, and the unjust judge applauds the minister of injustice…in lands whose princes are infidels and companions of thieves; they hasten to embrace those whose misdeeds they observe, thus adding their own share of iniquity in the hope that they may gain for themselves some portion of the spoil.

In this sort of state, governing is really “just a front activity” and to that extent the state is only failing at being a state but is otherwise remarkably effective in achieving its objective, which is to further enrich the state capture elite.

To be able to transition capture across elections, from one regime to another – as Kenya did in 2002 and again in 2013 and 2017 – involves repurposing politics so as to limit the political agency of citizens. To do this successfully, democracy has to be reframed in purely formal and procedural terms. The political class is then able to use the democratic process, especially elections, to frustrate what Michael Johnston calls “deep democratization”. Deep democratization, as opposed to procedural democracy, is:

[The] process whereby citizens become able to defend themselves and their interests by political means. It is “democratization”, not in the sense of establishing formal democratic institutions for their own sake, but rather in the sense of broadening the range of people and groups with some say about the ways power and wealth should—and should not—be pursued, used and exchanged. 

In this way, the procedural elements of democracy are used to hollow out its substantive commitments whilst keeping the diplomatic respectability that is conferred by regular elections.

In addition to sequestering democratic concepts for private use in this way, political elites also appropriate moral language and social norms to “conventionalise” corruption, fashioning a vocabulary that removes the moral sting and opprobrium from corruption and its various forms. Corruption is “traditionalised” and reframed as gift-giving or a form of socially recognisable reciprocity.

Why has state capture been so stable in Kenya, even seemingly able to transition through elections? Well, because the capture elites are not self-annihilating and an unstated rule of capture is that successor regimes will not disturb their predecessors.

Corrupt practices are then expressed in the language of moral obligation. No moral wrong is involved when an official or politician from one’s village violates conflict of interest rules or other laws to provide some benefit or to pull strings on behalf of kin and friends of friends. Once a moral bond is accepted as legitimate, a civil servant or politician cannot refuse to profit from “juicy” postings that might benefit him and his people or fail to “spread the benefit around” to his relatives. In this way, the state capture elite syncretically amalgamates traditional practices of gift-giving and reciprocity with their own corrupt and predatory practices that are based on smash and grab and a dollop of tokenism for friends and relatives.

This combination of a democracy drained of substance and communal mores, which are purloined to give social legitimacy to vice, erodes democracy’s emancipatory power and robs the public of the moral resources they need to confront bad governance. As George Steiner points out, political falsehood of this magnitude cuts language from its roots in “moral and emotional life” so that it becomes “ossified with clichés, unexamined definitions, and left-over words”. According to Steiner, this “anaesthetizing” drains “the life-force of the language” and dissolves the society’s moral and political values. Indeed, language is in a parlous condition when the bribe a judge takes to free a dangerous criminal is named chai, like a nice cuppa tea between intimates.

Seeing corruption as a problem of state capture solves many of the persistent puzzles of anti-corruption reform in Kenya. Why do the emblematic corruption cases, such as the Goldenberg, Anglo Leasing or Eurobond scandals, never get resolved even though they never really die? Because they are not meant to be resolved; to resolve them would undo the “implicit transition bargain” of Kenyan politics that successors will not harm the interests of their predecessors. And yet, these emblematic cases cannot really be allowed to die because that would expose the capture racket. Therefore, such cases are kept interminably in the public eye, partly as evidence that “action is live” and partly as a fig leaf to keep the machinery of larceny functioning under cover.

This combination of a democracy drained of substance and communal mores, which are purloined to give social legitimacy to vice, erodes democracy’s emancipatory power and robs the public of the moral resources they need to confront bad governance.

Goldenberg and other post-1992 state capture scandals marked a watershed in corruption politics, that is, “a shift from a politics of state-led control” to “a politics of competitive aggression, the principal victim of which has been the state itself”, says Dominic Burbidge. In this dispensation, politics “has become a pursuit of ever faster forms of enrichment”. These scandals challenge both the theory of democratic consolidation and the supposed “curative” effects of democracy on political corruption.

Kenya under democracy has transformed from a moderately corrupt society to a pervasively corrupt society, and corruption has moved stepwise from “petty or bureaucratic” to “grand or political” and, eventually, to state capture.

This is Part 1 of an abridged version of State Capture: Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption, a report published by the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) in May 2019.

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The Chinese Babies of Mathare and Other Love Stories

Large China-funded infrastructure projects in Kenya have led to an influx of Chinese male migrants, who have not just changed the landscape of the country, but who have also found love – and had children – in the most unlikely places. DAUTI KAHURA reports on the “Chikuyu” phenomenon.

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In the sprawling congested tenements of Kiamaiko, just behind Jonsaga area in Huruma, Nyawira (not her real name) used to be the gossip of her flatmates for the longest time. She was married to a Chinese man who had come to the country as a road construction worker in the mid-2000.

“I used to sell edibles to the Chinese workers, who had begun constructing Thika Road and that’s how we met,” said Nyawira somewhat nostalgically, remembering those days that she daily interacted with the Chinese. “It was my first time to meet with the Chinese people – they spoke neither English nor Kiswahili and I didn’t speak their language Mandarin. But they needed to eat and I needed to sell food. It is the story of how human beings can overcome imagined obstacles in order to relate.”

By the time the Thika superhighway was nearing completion, Nyawira and her Chinese friend were an item. They had even moved together in Kiamaiko and today their 12-year-old son is a testament to that liaison.

But the romance did not last long. “A couple of years back, he told me he had to head back home for some urgent matter I have not seen him since,” explained Nyawira.

In Nyawira’s neighbourhood, there are two Chinese men who share a one-bedroomed house. “The two men are my water clients,” said Zangi, one of the water vendors that supply water in 20-litre jerricans to Kiamaiko’s residents. “These Chinese have adapted to the local situation, they are just like our people.”

At Eastlands Hotel on Ring Road Kilimani, a wholly Chinese-owned deluxe hotel for Chinese tourists who cannot afford to stay at the city’s high-end hotels, I met Wamaitha (not her real name), an ordinarily very talkative and outgoing person, but only when her Chinese husband is not around. A consummate businesswoman, she met her Chinese mate at a business convention. She is in her early 30s, and her tummy is already showing a noticeable bump – a telltale sign that soon she will be expecting a baby. “My husband is also a businessman, dealing in precious stones,” said Wamaitha, who is from Kerugoya in Kirinyaga County.

To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video (the couple says they don’t know who did it) that went viral. Ngunjiri said her wedding to a Chinese man really excited Kenyans for reasons she cannot quite fathom.

Nyawira’s and Wamaitha’s inter-racial relationship stories with the Chinese is the story of diversity of the Chinese people who come to Kenya: from the construction worker to the polished entrepreneur, the Chinese migrants in the country have been causing socio-cultural ripples with their unparalleled quick adaptability to the local environment. “In the next 50 years in Kenya, the Chinese people are going to integrate into the Kenyan society in ways that can only be unimaginable today,” said Christom Karimi, a Kenya-Chinese cultural expert, who speaks perfect Mandarin.

To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video that went viral.

Inter-racial families in Kenya have never been a big deal; they are prevalent, especially among white men and indigenous Kenyan women. The white folk in Kenya has been around for long, and their liberal Western culture, English language, Christian religion and general demeanour have made it easier for Kenyan girls to easily gel with them. Not so with the Chinese, whose Oriental culture, language and even religion and their “peculiar” culinary habits have been alien to Kenyans. Chinese people eat dogs, cats and even frogs. These cuisine recipes would test the taste buds of even the strongest Kenyans, who are otherwise known to enjoy international menus.

Early this year, at Diamond estate in South B, Nairobi, a German shepherd went missing. A notice was plastered on the main gate to the estate. After a couple of days, when the garbage collectors came to pick the trash, they found the dog’s head in one of the dustbins. A security meeting was called and the people confronted one of the Chinese estate residents. He owned up to rounding up the canine and agreed to pay a fine of Sh35,000.

Usually, when a local girl gets married to a white man in Kenya, she is whisked off to a posh suburban area: these girls believe they have crossed the Rubicon; it is a mark of upward mobility and privileged social status. Not so with the inter-racial Chinese marriages between Chinese men and Kenyan women; like Nyawira, many end up living in shanty towns.

Where it all began

In 2009, three Chinese companies were contracted by the Kenyan government to build the Nairobi-Thika superhighway. These companies imported Chinese migrant labour who did the actual road construction. The Chinese workers lived in makeshift tin shacks with makeshift mobile toilets in a compound that was sealed from the rest of the Kenyans. The biggest construction site was at the huge Globe Cinema roundabout, where the construction of the 50 km superhighway began. The roundabout is just 500 metres from Nairobi’s central business district (CBD).

The Chinese workers were under strict instructions from the companies’ general managers not to meander into the CBD. So the only meaningful interactions the Chinese workers had with Kenyans was during tea and lunch breaks. At tea break, they would be served African tea and mandazi (a doughnut-like delicacy). For lunch, they were served local cuisine. The food usually included, ugali, githeri, chapati and broth made of turtle beans and green grams. Many of the girls and women who sold food at the site were from Mathare Valley, a large informal settlement that borders the Thika superhighway – the language barrier notwithstanding.

Five years later, in 2012, when the $360-million road was opened by President Mwai Kibaki, the Chinese migrant labour had not only completed the road and overpass bridges, they had also invested in creating inroads and building bridges among the local female populace. Referred to as chinku – the ghetto slang name for the Chinese, the Chinese quickly learned the local lingua franca Sheng, the colloquial language spoken in shanty towns across Nairobi.

Today, the Chinese have not only married local girls and become assimilated into Kenyan life, they have also ventured into informal businesses, a preserve of Nairobi’s rank and file that lives in Eastlands, the poorer part of the city. The resilience of the Chinese came to light when they started trading at Gikomba Market, the largest second-hand clothes market in East and Central Africa. Gikomba Market, a stone’s throw away from Mathare Valley, is a bedlam of activities: you would have to be made of tough metal to conduct business there.

Not all the local women were as lucky as Nyawira and Wamaitha to be in steady relationships, Nyawira’s hubby later disappearance notwithstanding. There are many the tale of Chinese men who have sowed seeds wherever they worked and moved on, either back to China, or relocated to other working sites.

In Mathare 4B, Njeri was not as lucky: she was abandoned by her Chinese mate even after having two children with him. She was also serving food to the Chinese on Thika superhighway. Her two boys are now big – one is about 8 years old, while the other is 10.

Mathare Valley is a hellish place. Reminiscent of the favelas of Port Alegre and Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, life in the slum is short, nasty and brutish. Among the children hopping over the open flowing sewers and mounds of garbage strewn all over are Njeri’s children, who have continually drawn attention from fellow children, not so much because of their fairer skin complexion, but more fundamentally, because of the shape of their eyes.

Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese. When she was asked to explain the anomaly, she owned up to having an affair with a Chinese construction worker. The Gitaru–Wangige Road is currently under construction by the Chinese. Local folklore has it that when she was asked to identify the man, even after they were paraded for identification, she could not pick him. The joke going around is that all Chinese men look alike.

Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese.

This is the same joke-story that Purity told me in Mwihoko, Githurai. Purity was a food seller at the Githurai roundabout during the road construction. Over time she befriended a Chinese man. When he impregnated her, he disappeared. “Ï went looking for him, among his colleagues, I couldn’t find him. That was 10 years ago, because that is how old her daughter is,” she said.

The Chinese invasion

The Chinese have not only been marrying local girls, impregnating the ones they could, and engaging in retail business, they have also, surprisingly, been attending church – mostly evangelical churches – and have even started local branches of international churches. To most Kenyans, the Chinese people are not known to worship the Christian God, much less worship God at all. This view traces its origin to the Chinese history as a majority of Kenyans understand it: that China has always been a communist country that has no place for God or religious activities.

Emboldened by the warm reception of a Christianised population, where 80 per cent of the country, nominally or otherwise, belongs to the various Christian denominations, the Chinese migrants are starting evangelical type churches even in rural Kenya. At Gambogi, a trading centre on the Kakamega-Kisumu Road, the Chinese construction workers who are building the 60km road between the two towns have colonised the Gambogi PAG (Pentecostal Assemblies of God) Church, situated just beside the road. Gambogi PAG Church, which has meetings in rented premises, has now added the name China to its church label to read China Gambogi PAG Church.

Today, there are three main Chinese churches in Nairobi, all run by pastors from abroad. The pastors, mainly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, are plying their trade in posh suburban areas in Nairobi. The Bread of Life Church, which is the better known of the Chinese churches, meets in a tall office block and caters mostly to employees of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), CGTN, the Chinese government broadcasting media house, and the business community.

Even though many of the migrant Chinese in Kenya are of evangelical persuasion, not all of them attend such churches. It is 4.00 pm at the Jehova Witness Kingdom Hall on Elgeyo Marakwet Road where the faithful meet every Sunday. A special service is going in Mandarin. Here, a group of Chinese Jehova Witness followers meet to fulfil their religious obligations. The meeting, incidentally, is not exclusively for the Chinese; there are Kenyans there, who by the virtue of attending these meetings, have learnt Mandarin.

The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani. Many of their social-economic activities are centred around this area. At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs. At Park 53 building on Ring Road, 90 per cent of the businesses, mostly restaurants, are owned by the Chinese. Because many of them do not speak the local lingua franca, English and Kiswahili, they tend to huddle together, hence live communally in the same area.

Amid all these Chinese activities in the country, their seemingly unchecked influx has apparently been causing disquiet among Kenyans, especially among small traders and the business community, who engage in the importation of merchandise. Kenyans tend not to be xenophobic, but the Chinese community is quietly and slowly eliciting xenophobic rhetoric among Kenyans.

The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani…At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs.

Several weeks ago, the MP for Starehe constituency, Charles Njagua, stoked xenophobic fears when he accused foreigners, who obviously included the Chinese, of monopolising all the businesses that “belong” to Kenyans. In his inciteful remarks, the MP said if the government did not take any “stern measures” against the foreigners, he would lead the people in ferreting out the foreigners out of the country. The MP has since recanted his statement, arguing that he was quoted out of context. But the point had already been made.

Traders on Gaberone Lane, the 100m backstreet alleyway behind Gaberone Road in downtown Nairobi supported and loudly voiced the xenophobic rhetoric against the Chinese. It is not difficult to see why. They all deal mainly in fabric and textiles materials, all imported from China. “Since the Chinese entered into this business, our businesses have gone down, they have been doing everything to undercut us by their price differentiation” said Ken Mutahi, who has been importing fabrics from China for the last 15 years.

“The Chinese have the unparalleled advantage of buying the materials directly from the factories, in their own country, while we buy from retailers. It has become increasingly impossible to compete with them, because all they need to do is lower their prices a little bit and they will still be within their profit margin,” complained Mutahi. He said that the traders were furious with the government for allowing the Chinese to “invade” their businesses. “Which government allows foreigners to overrun businesses meant for the locals?”

At Gikomba Market, anger has been building up against the Chinese traders, who have taken the second-hand clothes business by storm. “Chinese are now some of the biggest middle men, involved in selling thousands of bales of clothes,” said Elvis Kariuki, himself a trader at the market since the early 1990s. “We have been asking ourselves what kind of work permit these Chinese are on that allows them to engage in such businesses,” said Kariuki. Seemingly better organised and with a lot more capital than the local traders, the Chinese have been buying huge stocks of second-hand clothes mainly imported from the United Kingdom and filling all the warehouses in Gikomba.

“Expatriates who come to the country should be bringing in [new] knowledge and skills that maybe scarce or non-existent – why does the government allow the Chinese to come and take our jobs?” posed Kariuki. The trader said many of the Gikomba Market traders who have never known or done any other work, other than selling second-hand clothes, are very bitter with both the government and the Chinese traders.

The Chinese have not only infiltrated the second-hand clothes market, they are also involved in importing – from their own country – merchandise that was the sole preserve of the small traders. In downtown Nairobi, Chinese traders are running shops and renting stores which they stock with stuff imported from China. These items include cheap feature mobile phone handsets, their spare parts and hi-fi equipment such as hoofers.

“Some of the Chinese traders doing business in Kenya have been contracted by local companies back at home,” said a Kenyan trader who has been in the business of importing the same stuff. “The Chinese traders then become the conduits for creating new markets for the products manufactured back in China.”

The Chinese traders, on the other hand, have a different view of themselves. Some of the Chinese traders I spoke to said that they were not taking away anybody’s job or business – all they were doing was engaging in market competition. “We just happen to be aggressive and versatile,” some of one Chinese trader.

Forty-year-old Alex Cao (pronounced Chao), originally from Tianjin, came to Kenya seven years ago. He said he found his niche in real estate development. “It is never a smooth sail,” said Cao. “Dexterity is the name of the game if you have to survive the market onslaught.”

Richard Ling, 30, hails from Guangzhou and has been in Kenya for only three years. A trader, he hawks merchandise, including mobile phone gadgets, chargers, power banks, and torches, from his small rented stall at Kamukunji market building in downtown Nairobi.

Sixty-year-old Ling Fang came to Kenya 20 years ago. His wife joined him 10 year later. They found success in selling and stocking drapery and other upholstery materials, which they import in bulk from their country. From their shop on Biashara Street, they have engaged in both retail and wholesale business.

The dexterity of the Chinese in Kenya has seen them diversify in all manner of businesses. At the Eastmart supermarket on Tom Mboya Street, one of the upcoming suppliers of confectioneries is a Chinese man who makes doughnuts, shortcakes and cupcakes. “Every morning by 8.00 am, the Chinese man will deliver his goods without fail,” said the supermarket attendant who is in charge of the bread and cakes section. “His prices are between Sh10 and Sh20 cheaper and his cakes are slightly bigger, so they move faster.”

At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.

“The Chinese who are always looking for favourable places to do business have recently been migrating to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian economy is growing at a steady pace, the government has reduced much of the red tape associated with starting businesses for foreigners and their tax regime is not as punishing,” Karimi said.

At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.

By 2017, China had become Kenya largest trading partner. In 2017, it built a new railway line, at the cost of $3.18 billion, the most expensive infrastructure expenditure in Kenya since independence.

Two years ago, perhaps in an effort to endear themselves to Kenyans, a Chinese philanthropic group started a feeding programme in eight informal primary schools in Mathare 4A. The biggest of these schools, Chang Rong – which translates as Mathare Light Centre – is the biggest, with 400 pupils. Collins Abongo, a teacher at the school, told me the Chinese also sponsor a football tournament among the eight schools.

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BBI and the Referendum: Another False Start?

Constitutional amendments have preceded every Kenyan election since 1992. But have these amendments brought about real change or are they merely tools that are used to entrench the status quo? DAUTI KAHURA finds out.

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BBI and the Referendum: Another False Start?
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As the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) comes to a close (the last town hall meeting is slated for July 28, 2019, in Nairobi County) the spotlight on the initiative has shifted to its mandate, and has been heightened up by a section of Kenyans who are already anticipating its probable outcome. This directed interest and anticipation of the process led to two widely circulated documents on social media on July 15, which the BBI team, led by its chairman, Senator Yusuf Haji, promptly denied. The documents, titled BBI Technical Team Proposals and Proposed Changes to The Constitution were declared “fake” by Senator Haji.

BBI was constituted after President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, his chief political opponent, shook hands on March 9, 2018. On May 24, 2018, BBI was gazetted and soon commenced its countrywide solicitations of public opinion.

Paul Mwangi, one of the joint secretaries to BBI (the other one is Ambassador Martin Kimani), in an interview conducted by The Elephant, said that the BBI team was shocked to see the documents, purportedly authored by BBI, being posted on the Internet. “We were surprised to see these documents. Like everyone else, the team saw them for the first time on social media. It is to be expected that as we conclude our town hall county meetings, interest in BBI’s work has risen in all quarters of the Kenyan society,” said Mwangi. “BBI hopes to wrap up its county participation on or around August 9 and, therefore, any report purporting to second-guess the committee’s work that is not from the BBI’s team is to be disregarded.”

The initiative’s terms of reference were extended to October from May, 2019, after it fell behind its schedule. Once through with the Nairobi meeting, Mwangi said the team will immediately start compiling the deliberations with the help of a team of researchers, each of whom has been assigned the nine thematic areas: corruption, ethnic antagonism and competition, devolution, divisive elections, inclusivity, lack of national ethos, safety and security, shared prosperity, responsibilities and rights. “We should be done by October 24,” he said.

I asked Mwangi whether a referendum was one of the issues that the BBI deliberated upon, to which he quickly retorted, “I don’t wish to preempt anything at this time of the process. BBI will suggest solutions and it’s these solutions that will determine whether there will be a referendum or not.”

But an inside source, who cannot be named because he is officially not authorised to speak on behalf of BBI, said: “The issue of a referendum is a foregone conclusion – the question is not if, but when the referendum will be held. That is the climax of the process.”

The source said the town hall meetings have been a process of setting the ground for an eventual referendum. “We will not go to the next general election without a constitutional change, that is why the issue of a referendum has gripped the nation, and you can see that is what currently is preoccupying Kenyans.”

The source told me Ekuru Aukot’s referendum efforts are meant to be a distraction to BBI’s own referendum project: “Whoever is funding him wants to steal the thunder from BBI, dilute and make nonsense of the BBI’s forthcoming referendum.”

But an inside source, who cannot be named because he is officially not authorised to speak on behalf of BBI, said: “The issue of a referendum is a foregone conclusion – the question is not if, but when the referendum will be held. That is the climax of the process.”

The people behind Aukot’s referendum hope to argue “why have another referendum and there is already one at hand that is actually addressing the fundamental issues in the constitution that are troubling Kenyans?’ observed the source. Nicknamed Punguza Mzigo (reduce the load) one of the biggest issues that the Aukot’s referendum wants to deal with is the issue of “over-representation”, hence, a need to reduce some of the political seats, such as MPs’ seats. Aukot is the party leader of The Third Way Alliance Party.

“Were Ekuru’s referendum to be held, he would only need the consent of 24 counties, as per the 2010 constitution. He would then take his finding to Parliament, which as currently constituted, is presumably controlled by Deputy President William Ruto’s supporters in the Jubilee Party,” said the source. “Although Aukot’s referendum issues sound right and would easily resonate with a majority of Kenyans, the proposed constitutional changes he is seeking are meant to blind Kenyans, that indeed he cares about their plight. Truth be said, those changes would be difficult to implement and in any case, they would not be implemented immediately.”

As a pointer to the coming BBI referendum, Senator James Orengo, Ugunja MP Opiyo Wandayi, Alego Usonga MP Samwel Atandi and Rarieda MP Otiende Amollo, faulted the Punguza Mzigo initiative and counselled the Third Way Alliance party boss to be patient and wait for BBI, which, ostensibly according to them, will deal with all the issues pertaining to Kenyans.

Said Orengo on July 21: “We are waiting for the BBI report that has all the issues of the people. The questions in Aukot’s proposal have not undergone stakeholders consultations, let’s wait for October when we will have the BBI report and thereafter a referendum that will decide on the fate of Kenyans.”

Succession politics

Since 1992, when the country returned to multiparty elections, no presidential succession has not been preceded by a constitutional change, said my source. “That is why the elephant in the living room of the BBI’s unproclaimed core mission has been the referendum. A chronological understanding of the succession politics since 1992 to date should therefore locate the real reason behind BBI’s formation, its real agenda, bearing in mind the 2022 succession political perspective and its dynamics.”

Responding to Western countries’ pressure to liberalise the monolithic Kanu party politics, President Daniel arap Moi, in December 1991, orchestrated a political process that culminated in the removal of Section 2A of the old constitution that made Kenya a de jure single party system. And although the amendment to the constitution did not immediately transform the country into a democratic polity, it allowed for the introduction of pluralistic politics. That is how FORD, before it split into two (Ford-Asili and Ford Kenya), the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) and the Kenya Social Congress (KSC), led by firebrand politician and ex-detainee, George Anyona, came into being. So, for the first time since independence, opposition parties were allowed to participate in the December 29, 1992 general election.

Faced with another election in five years, President Moi was again confronted with demands to expand the scope of the political space, as well as to institute constitutional and legal changes. Between 1992 and 1997, there were continuous demands from the opposition and civil society organisations to effect these changes, especially to level the tilted playing field. President Moi ignored these demands until a few months before the December 29, 1997 general election. Principally, to ease off the pressure that had been building and that had threatened to forestall the elections through a boycott under the clarion call of “no reforms, no elections”, he acquiesced to some minimum reforms.

Responding to Western countries’ pressure to liberalise the monolithic Kanu party politics, President Daniel arap Moi, in December 1991, orchestrated a political process that culminated in the removal of Section 2A of the old constitution that made Kenya a de jure single party system.

Inevitably, the question in 1997, as the country prepared for its second multiparty elections. was: Should we go to the elections with or without reforms? As the political temperatures gradually soared, it became imperative that the country needed some facilitative reforms.

The formation of the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) allowed President Moi some breathing space, and afforded the opposition some minimum reforms to go to the elections with. Just a month before the election, in November, through the IPPG, a number of constitutional, legal and administrative changes were adopted. They included enlarging the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) to accommodate representatives from the opposition, repealing the Public Order Act (which President Moi used to harass and scuttle the oppositions’ rallies), and allowing the registration of new political parties. At that time, the Safina Party, led by Paul Muite, was registered and more fundamentally, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) Act was amended to allow for more equal air time for all political parties.

Aware that the facilitative reforms had allowed President Moi to hold a largely incident-free election in which once again he trounced his opponents, civil society, led by the National Convention Executive Committee (NCEC) – which was at the forefront of demands for a new constitution, and which was opposed to piecemeal constitutional reforms – was unrelenting in its push for a new constitution. The issue of a new constitution, just like the facilitative reforms, was one that President Moi did not want to deal with and therefore kept postponing the matter.

By the late 1990s, when faced with an election that he would not participate directly in as a presidential candidate since being elected in 1978 after the death of President Jomo Kenyatta, President Moi had already started planning his exit and successor. A new constitution did not feature in his plans because his hand-picked successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, went into the elections under the old constitution, fraught as it was with risks.

To deflect the NCEC’s pressure and refusing to cave in to demands for a new constitution, President Moi suspended Parliament on October 25, 2002, and announced an election timetable, all in the name of forestalling Katiba Tuitakayo, a proposed new constitution model by NCEC. Under the old constitution, the President was bestowed with the powers to dissolve Parliament and call elections at his pleasure, and once Parliament was dissolved, a general election had to take place within 90 days.

On November 4, 1999, at a press conference, the NCEC spokesperson Prof Kivutha Kibwana pointed out that, “Kanu has demonstrated that it is unwilling and therefore incapable of ushering in constitutional and democratic change in Kenya.”

The general election was held on December 27, 2002, and President Moi’s project – the candidature of Uhuru Kenyatta running on a Kanu ticket – was defeated by Mwai Kibaki, formerly of the Democratic Party, but then running under the banner of the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc). The first thing that President Kibaki promised when he was sworn in at Uhuru Park on December 31, 2002 was a new constitution within a 100 days.

To fulfil his promise, Kibaki supported the continuation of the work of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC), which had been constituted in November 2000 by a legal framework for reviewing the constitution. CKRC was headed by the renowned constitutional lawyer, Prof Yash Pal Ghai. After their lengthy deliberations at the Bomas of Kenya, CKRC, came up with a new draft constitution. The draft included a raft of constitutional proposals, such as a parliamentary system of government with 14 regions, and a hybrid presidential system with more or less ceremonial powers but with co-shared executive powers between the president and a prime minister. It was an experiment that borrowed from both the British (parliamentary) and the American (presidential) systems.

“But instead of presenting the Bomas Draft to Kenyans, President Kibaki gave them a ‘skunk’ in the name of the Wako Draft,” said the source. “Amos Wako was the then Attorney General and instead of giving Kenyans the draft constitution that they had helped to come up with, he bastardised the Bomas Draft and edited the old constitution to cheat Kenyans that that was the new constitution that they had debated upon.”

This Wako Draft was the basis of the Orange vs Banana referendum in 2005. The Orange proponents opposed the draft, while the Banana supporters proposed the implementation of the draft. “The outcome of that referendum had not been difficult to predict,” said the source. “Clearly, what was being presented to Kenyans was not what they had proposed to CKRC and which had been adopted at Bomas of Kenya through the National Constitutional Conference (NCC).”

The Wako Draft was rejected by a majority of Kenyans and thereafter, President Kibaki fired all his cabinet ministers. Those who were aligned to the No (Orange) movement did not return to government. “Constitutional experts have always argued that it was at this point that President Kibaki ought to have resigned from government because the referendum had essentially passed a vote of no confidence in his government,” said the source.

The critics of the Bomas Draft, mainly technical people and some political elites, argued that the draft was a mongrel kind of constitution that failed to locate state power and therefore was not bold enough to differentiate between the president and the prime minister, who wielded real power. The critics pointed out that in a politically fragile country like Kenya, this was a risky venture.

“After the government was defeated in the referendum, electioneering went into high gear and that is when the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) was formed by Raila after he was sacked as a cabinet minister,” the source said. “The electorate was being prepped to go into the 2007 election without a new constitution and clearly this was a harbinger of things to come…the ominous signs were there…as sure as night follows day, there was going to be violence.”

The Wako Draft was rejected by a majority of Kenyans and thereafter, President Kibaki fired all his cabinet ministers. Those who were aligned to the No (Orange) movement did not return to government. “Constitutional experts have always argued that it was at this point that President Kibaki ought to have resigned from government because the referendum had essentially passed a vote of no confidence in his government,” said the source.

After the devastating election of December 2007, after which violence indeed erupted, especially in the North Rift, the country was taken back to pre-2002 scenario: the country needed to have a new constitution if it was to hold the next general election in five years time.

In 2008, Ekuru Aukot become the chief executive officer (CEO) and secretary of the Committee of Experts (CoE) that was mandated to look afresh into the matter of processing a new constitution. Nzamba Kitonga became the CoE’s chair. The CoE members included, among others, the current Supreme Court of Kenya judge Njoki Ndungú, Otiende Amollo, currently the MP for Rarieda, Atsango Chesoni, Prof Frederick Ssempembwa, a Ugandan, Chaloka Beyani, a Zambian, and Prof Christina Murrey from South Africa.

“The CoE came up with the Draft Proposed Constitution of Kenya, which it rolled out for people’s comments and opinions just like BBI is doing, only that its methods were different,” said the source. It printed the Draft in thousands, placed it as inserts in the mainstream newspapers, uploaded it online and also printed booklets which were distributed to the populace.”

After reviewing the Draft as the law required, the CoE passed the document to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on constitutional review chaired by Abdikadir Mohamed. The PSC meeting held in Naivasha made a significant change: it removed the hybrid system and replaced it with a purely presidential system, the one that Kenya has now.

The PSC Draft is what was published by Wako – “and as the law required of him, he was not to tamper with the draft, as he had done in 2005 with the Bomas Draft. The Draft was taken to Parliament as is and it was passed as a consensus document.”

After reviewing the Draft as the law required, the CoE passed the document to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on constitutional review chaired by Abdikadir Mohamed. The PSC meeting held in Naivasha made a significant change: it removed the hybrid system and replaced it with a purely presidential system, the one that Kenya has now.

“With the foregoing, it is obvious that Kenya must have, at the very least, constitutional changes, if it is to face the 2022 general election” said the source. “After the 2017 general election, in which for the first time in the history of legal jurisprudence, a presidential election win was revoked by the judiciary, to be followed by a fresh presidential election, the country for a while seemed to teeter on the precipice.”

“It looks like the political elite logic has always been to play the election game of holding elections every five years, while all they do is tweak the constitution to create the impression that we have dealt with real constitutional changes. All this in the name of perpetuating themselves, putting the opposition in its place and ensuring there is no tumultuous revolt,” said the source.

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